Qiana Johnson recently drove three hours from Prince George’s County to Worchester County on the Eastern Shore to support a man scheduled for sentencing.
Upon her arrival, a court official told Johnson and those who had traveled to support the man, they could not appear in the courtroom without an attorney. Stunned, Johnson called a lawyer to file a motion on their behalf.
“This Black man has substance abuse issues and he got sentenced for 15 years. The prosecutor wanted 20-plus,” she said. “If we were not in that courtroom with that man, he would’ve got that 20 plus years. We sat [there] and held [court officials] accountable.”
This remains a typical day for Johnson – executive director of Life After Release, an organization established in 2017 to provide the formerly and currently incarcerated with essential services including legal, voting rights and employment.
Johnson, who lives in Brandywine and has two sons, 17 and 21, says she remains committed to her work in criminal justice reform. She’s said she plans to add to the 717 years she’s counted in jail and prison terms which men and women have avoided under her organization’s watch.
“When I get a grandmother, mother and sister and cousin who say that a young man is innocent, that gives me energy to put in the work and save someone’s life,” she said. “That’s why I can’t stop. I just want to see how many people I can get free before I close my eyes on this Earth.”
While her group assists Black men, their focus remains women from the D.C. region who have served time behind bars. Johnson and several of her staff have personal knowledge of the inhumane treatment women often endure. She served 2½ years in prison and her executive assistant counts as a formerly incarcerated woman as well.
A November report released by The Sentencing Project of Northwest highlights a national imprisonment rate for Black women in 2019 of 83 per 100,000 people. The rate for white women, in comparison – nearly two times higher at 43 per 100,000.
Johnson relays that collaboration serves as a key to successful outcomes for the organization’s clients, particularly beyond the D.C. region. Earlier this month, Life After Release joined more 90 groups in Maryland demanding that state lawmakers approve stronger criminal justice reform policies. However, as the House and Senate approved altered versions of the bill, a conference committee of their respective members must now be formed to hash out the differences.
One of her main projects deals with community court watching at the Prince George’s courthouse in Upper Marlboro. About 200 volunteers help with the effort sitting in on various judicial proceedings to assess courtroom demeanor, charges levied by a judge and other legal matters.
Fiona Apple, a Grammy-award winning singer, serves as one of the group’s dedicated volunteers. Filmmaker Zelda Hilmman posted a video of Apple on her Instagram page with Apple explaining that her absence during the recent Grammy’s was not a boycott of the show.
Afterward, she asked for people to sign a petition. As of Saturday, March 20, more than 6,500 of the requested 7,000 signatures had been received on the petition.
Here’s part of Apple’s message: “Please sign this petition . . . to keep the virtual access to courts open for court watchers, specifically for P.G. County. There’s people who are held pretrial on nonviolent charges, on bonds they can’t afford, or on bond. It’s ruing families and [expletive] with futures that we need to help protect.”